Choral conductor Henry Engbrecht chose the St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach as his final piece leading Canzona, the baroque choir he started 25 years ago.

"It's the greatest music, it really is," he said. "It just pulls everybody together."

This concert caps off Engbrecht's long and rich career in choral conducting. He also spent decades as Director of Choral Studies at the University of Manitoba where he led the University of Manitoba Singers and the University Women’s Choir. 

'People have this brush with greatness which is sometimes even life-changing.' - Henry Engbrecht, on the music of Bach

Singer and conductor Mel Braun remembers when Engbrecht first engaged him as a young singer. Braun is now Head of the Voice Department at the Faculty of Music, and was therefore a longtime colleague of Engbrecht.

"He always made things happen wherever he was," said Braun. "He was ambitious and saw possibilities. He's a choral builder and he does it because he cares about people and he cares about the music."

Braun also points out that a huge number of high school and elementary music teachers have been trained by Engbrecht through the years.

Sarah Kirsch is one of the newer members of Canzona. While she loves singing cutting-edge new music, she credits Engbrecht with helping to develop her love affair with the music of Bach and says she adores working with him.

"He's kind of a ballast in the music community, and specifically the choral community and early music community," she said. "He's such a committed facilitator, bringer together of people, raiser of funds, and just all around energetic and committed musician. He really believes in his purpose of bringing a particular calibre of musicians together to make Bach or Handel or Zelenka come alive. It's great."

Engbrecht said he had no intention of organizing a baroque choir 25 years ago. 

"I didn't want to start it up," he said. "The students came to me and said, 'we want to do baroque music' and I literally said, 'go away,' because I know how much work those things are."

The students insisted, and the choir presented its first concert in the fall of 1989 at Holy Trinity Church. Despite little advertising, 200 people showed up.

Then a year and a half later, the students came back, wanting to do another one.

"And that was it," said Engbrecht, laughing. Canzona was born. They soon performed as part of the now defunct Bach Festival, they put on their own season of concerts and before long, were operating as a professional choir.

They specialize in the music of the baroque period (around 1600 - 1750), especially Bach, but also Vivaldi and Handel and many lesser-known composers like Zelenka, Hasse and Campra. Engbrecht feels his love for baroque music, and particularly the music of Bach, was his destiny. 

"I had a strong identity with it. I grew up in my church community singing chorales and our people sang them unaccompanied. So that was an automatic connection," he said.

"And then with the strong tradition of choral singing in this province, that so many people came with a familiarity to it and with a great interest in it, the passion grew, for sure."

But Engbrecht's appreciation for music extends much further than the baroque era. He spent a year's sabbatical in Eastern Europe where he discovered contemporary music of Estonians Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis and more, and introduced this extraordinary music to the Winnipeg community for the first time.

New music has also been a fascination of his. Earlier this season Canzona performed a whole concert of contemporary Canadian music in the Groundswell season. 

"That was fun. Our Canadian composers have really grown in that area" he said.


Canzona celebrates is 25th anniversary on April 13 with a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. (Andrew Sikorsky)

As for highlights, Engbrecht finds it difficult to narrow it down to one.

"The highlight has been life -- working with other people who share the passion, also with the musicians of MusikBarock, like Eric Lussier and his company of players. The friendship and the support and the collaborative spirit is extraordinary, it's absolutely a delight. It's highlights of life, of the journey, that go way beyond what I have the right to expect."

After this concert, Engbrecht's former student Elroy Friesen will take over the reigns. "It's a good time to pass the torch," he said.

But he won't be putting his feet up for long. He continues to lead the Faith & Life Male Choir and has been invited to Paraguay in June to lead some choral music in a Mennonite community.

Meanwhile, he is immersed in the joyful experience of preparing the Canzona choir in this extremely challenging and exciting work by Bach, music that never ceases to inspire him.

"There's so much to sing, it really challenges the musicianship and the vocal technique of people and their full musical integrity and then to rise to that has to be one of the most satisfying and eye-opening experiences," he said.

"People have this brush with greatness which is sometimes even life-changing. It's something that feeds the soul and maybe it'll even make me a better person," he said.

Henry Engbrecht leads Canzona for the last time in Bach's St. Matthew Passion with MusikBarock at Westminster United Church on Sunday, April 13 at 6:00 p.m.